Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit, ed. Überwindung der Moderne? Japan am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1996.
Detlef Bauer. Die Transmoderne: Eine kulturkritische Diskussion im Japan der Kriegszeit. Doctoral dissertation, Fakultät für Kulturwissenschaften der Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, 1995.
Contemporary Japan, as an object of study, has lost much of its luster. The rhetoric of singularity and success recedes as Japan turns to the world a face lined with mediocrity and failure. The sparkling disquisitions of a Roland Barthes seem a mockery when set against the phenomena of earthquakes, gas attacks, recession, homelessness, bullying, tainted blood, and bureaucratic bumbling. Nor do literature and cinema provide a pretext for brilliant commentary, for here, too, we meet corruption and exhaustion. Even the critical task of dismantling the myth of Japanese uniqueness has been rendered superfluous by the ordinariness of these woes. What, then, other than study the glories of the past, are Japanologists to do?
In recent years the discussion of ‘Japan and postmodernism’ – a nice topic for postprandial chit-chat – has become fraught with significance for scholars in Japan, Europe, and America. It has excused them from tedious analyses of social and political reality. Now, as Sinologists follow suit, discussion of ‘China and postmodernism’ breaks in rudely on what was supposed to be the privileged intimacy between Japan and postmodernity. Meanwhile, Slavoj Zizek – the Rambo of postmodernism, heavily armed with Lacan and Hegel – seems to admire Japan for its pre-modern virtues more than anything else:
“Japanese are well aware that something which may appear superficial and unnecessary has a much deeper structural function... Even if something is merely an appearance, politeness is not simply insincere... Surfaces do matter... You shouldn’t play with rituals. Masks are never simply mere masks... There is nothing liberating in this typical Western gesture of stealing the masks and showing the true face. What you discover is something absolutely disgusting.” (interview with C-Theory on the Internet)
Zizek admits that he has no ‘strong theory’ about Japan, as he has about Slovenia or Serbia. It might be doubted whether such theory is required or practicable; since the qualities that make Japan worthy of love and admiration come from old tradition, are they not sufficiently appreciated in humanistic historical and aesthetic study, reinforced if need be with a touch of new-historical sophistication, without the avant-garde theorizing bred by the complications of western society? Japan is theory-resistant in more ways than one. Yet the claim that there is nothing to theorize is itself defensive and obscurantist, a symptom that the work of analysis is being blocked.
The rise and fall of the postmodernism debate in Japan is itself a symptom worthy of analysis. As a set of scholarly gambits postmodern theory has yielded some insights into Japanese art and society past and present. But as an ideology postmodernism may have had graver effects. In its ‘anything goes’ version, it canonizes degraded aspects of popular culture and the tyrannies of consumerism and computerdom, and by a relativist attitude to truth and objectivity it opens the door to Aum-like irrationalism. As a rhetoric of ‘the end of modernity,’ translated in Japan as ‘the bankruptcy of the West,’ it gives a new lease of life to those traditions of reaction which could never stomach the Enlightenment.
Suspicion of the liaisons between postmodernism and reaction is reinforced when we recall how such rhetoric throve in Germany in its darker decades and was in turn exploited by Japanese nationalists. Detlef Bauer’s thesis, which deals with the symposium on ‘Overcoming Modernity’ organized by the magazine Literary World in July 1942, sheds light on this period in the prehistory of postmodernism. (For another account see Minamoto Ryôen, in J. Heisig and J. Maraldo, Rude Awakenings, Honolulu, 1994, pp. 197-229.) The symposium was acclaimed as a gesture of wartime resolve (p. 145), showing the intellectual avant-garde marching in step with the masses; and indeed the participants were united in seeing the war as an expression of Japan’s heroic idealism, though it was not a major theme in their debate (pp. 102-5).
Bauer gives detailed intellectual and ideological portraits of the thirteen participants, who fall into three groups: (1) members of the Literary World association: Hayashi Fusao (1903-1975), one of the writers who had converted from communism to fascism, the critics Kamei Katsuichirô (1907-1966), Kobayashi Hideo (1902-1983), Kawakami Tetsutarô (1902-1980), Nakamura Mitsuo (1911-1988), and the sometimes jingoistic poet Miyoshi Tatsuji (1900-1964); (2) the Kyoto School scholars Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990) and Suzuki Shigetaka (1907-1988); (3) the independents: the physicist Kikuchi Seishi (1902-1974), the composer Moroi Saburô (1903-1977), the philosopher Shimomura Toratarô (b. 1902), the film critic Tsumura Hideo (1907-1985), and the Sophia University philosopher of religion Yoshimitsu Yoshihiko (1904-1945). There follows an account of the two (stiflingly hot) days of discussion based on the partipicants’ papers; the most vocal discussants were the Kyoto school representatives. An appendix gives the texts of Nishitani (who claims that Absolute Nothingness heals the dissociation between Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment strands in western modernity), Hayashi (a sentimental and fanatical piece about loyalty to the Emperor, with interesting remarks on the evil influences of European literature), and Nakamura (a sensible critique of the imperfect digestion of western discoveries in Japan).
Nishitani associates the Buddhist overcoming of a substantial self with the individual’s self-abnegation in the service of the State. The unity of the State requires that all individuals annihilate their egos: ‘A prudent State will exact the dedication to the annihilation of the ego required for the tasks of the workplace’ (p. 160). This religious ethic (identified with the ‘way of the gods’) replaces the profit motive of capitalism; it also appears to render Marxist questions inoperative. Thorough transcendence and thorough immanence here coincide, as they cannot in the West, to create a maximum accumulation of ‘moral energy’ (p. 161). This achievement is unique to Japan, but universal in import; it makes Japan an ‘artery of world history’ (p. 170). Nishitani’s claim that a negative and impersonal view of the Absolute was more suited than the western notion of a personal God to open up the secularized technological world to transcendent meaning was strongly opposed by the Neo-Thomist Yoshimitsu; despite calls to order from the chair, their heated exchange wandered far from the theme of the symposium (pp. 111-12). The two philosophers had to endure a scathing critique of their literary style, lacking in Japanese sensuousness, from Kobayashi, the pope among literary critics (p. 120).
The participants had diverging conceptions of modernity and different degrees of scepticism or attachment toward it; there is a corresponding diversity in their ideas of overcoming modernity. Yoshimitsu, Hayashi and Kamei would return to the pre-modern, either to a restored Christian middle ages that would repeal the modern experiment or to a renewed belief in the gods and spirits of Japan (p. 138). Kikuchi, Tsumura and Moroi, happier with contemporary arts and technology, express no hostility to the modern. The representatives of Literary World and the Kyoto school are critical modernists: they enthuse about historicity and pluralism in a way that sounds postmodern, but they reject reductionist historicism, and their stress on social unity undercuts their celebration of radical plurality. The symposiasts foresaw a new world order: three regions of equal status, led by the U. S., the Axis powers, and Japan respectively. They ‘saw more clearly than American and European politicians and intellectuals the lasting displacement of political weight in the world’ (p. 136). But let’s not make a mountain of a molehill; the ‘Overcoming Modernity’ symposium is not a major intellectual event.
The waning of the ‘Japan and postmodernism’ debate into a chronicle of cultural jadedness is apparent in the collection Überwindung der Moderne, based on interdisciplinary lectures given at the East Asiatic Seminar of the Free University of Berlin in 1995. In her introduction, Irmela Hijiya-Kirchnereit points out that the discourse on postmodernism camouflages a movement back to Japan’s Asian heritage. (She sees Endo Shûsaku’s Deep River as confessing Asia’s superiority to Christian Europe, a radical step for ‘the Japanese Graham Greene.’) This dialectical slippage between postmodernism and atavism is a central theme of the collection.
Franziska Seraphim examines the controversies over the
meaning of the wartime past in the context of Japan’s current
self-understanding. A postmodern taste for interpretative undecidability
permits a cosmetic spin-doctoring, as in the musical ‘Ri Kôran.’ The complexity
of the debate and the lack of consensus have at least the merit of breaking
down simplistic notions of Japan’s role.
Carol Gluck focuses on the country’s sense of having crossed a historic threshold, as the postwar period and the Cold War yield to a postmodern period in which the millennium looms. To the claim that traditional Japanese culture can show the West the way out of the dead-ends of modernity (‘the revenge of the periphery’) she retorts: ‘The twentieth century belongs to the modern age, and there are no alternatives to modernity yet’ (p. 85).
Mishima Ken’ichi broods on the dilemma of Japanese intellectuals caught on a dialectical seesaw between ‘Occidentalism’ and Japanese essentialistic nationalism. Sometimes they sought to ‘de-Japanize themselves,’ as a remedy for provinciality; imitation of western imperialist discourse, however, led to utterances such as this, from the liberal Fukuzawa Yukichi: ‘Whites have refined skin... They are the best race... Blacks, to the contrary, are degenerate in character and display no trace of a drive to civilized progress’ (p. 104). Mishima denounces current nihonjinron claims that western modernity is a failed project and that Japan has always had the postmodern virtues of pluralism, tolerance, and a non-objectifying way of thought favoring harmonious social relationality; this studiously ignores the efforts of the West since the seventeenth century to establish a culture of tolerance. If western postmodernism often caricatures modernity and modernism, this is even more the case in Japan, where summary doxographies offer deceptive mastery of the genius of the modern west. At times, Mishima slips from critical dissection to emotional blustering: ‘I am sick to death of these sloppy inkspillers whose tireless productivity is based not on a wealth of ideas but on a self-image neurosis’ (p. 114). Even the psychiatrist Doi Takeo is denounced in these terms, while Samuel P. Huntington, who sees the ‘clash of civilizations’ as the major problem facing globalized society, is described - I am not sure why - as the ‘Harvard Machiavelli.’
Klaus Antoni takes up Huntington’s diagnosis but contests his claim that Japan forms a distinct civilization on its own. He shows how the negative attitudes of Japan toward China are rooted in the works of Kokugaku scholars such as Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) and Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843), who considered Confucianism a sterile system revealing that the ‘godless’ Chinese no longer had intuitive access to the way of virtue. The apparent uniqueness of Japan is the product of such traditions of prejudiced thinking and should not be taken at face value.
A time of change favors the apocalyptic imagination. Here again the postmodern rejoins the atavistic, as Lisette Gebhardt shows in her study of the occultism that has pervaded Japanese culture (including the novels of Nakagami Kenji and Oe Kenzaburo) since the late seventies. Alluding to the recent popularity of Yanagita Kunio’s Tales of Tôno (1910), she speaks of the Tônoization of Japan, a mixture of nostalgic longing for roots, mystical communion with the spirit-world, and anti-technological anarchy. Japanese culture has not been calmly registering the phenomena of economic growth, urban alienation and bureaucratic politics; rather it has reacted by massive investment in spiritualistic speculation, seething under the surface. Gebhardt refrains from explicit critical comment, which makes the landscape she reveals all the more chilling.
Jennifer Robertson shows how the internationalization of Japan today goes hand in hand with nostalgia for Japanese origins, since it allows Japanese to look at their tradition the way a foreigner does and so to rediscover its charm. This dialectic is seen in the relation of Tokyo to the rest of Japan: as the metropolis devotes itself to information capitalism, the countryside is rediscovered as a desirable place of escape or retirement. The proliferation of seemingly international enclaves (Tokyo Disneyland, Nagasaki’s Huis Ten Bosch, Parque Espana near Ise, Little World in Aichi Prefecture) provides a reassuringly simplified model of foreign cultures. Meanwhile, as modern Japan provides fewer and fewer likely objects of nostalgia, the vague feeling of homelessness finds an outlet in artificial tourist villages and in mini-republics, such as Republic of Humour, Cassette Boy Republic, Laughmania and Jipangu, which have their own laws and currency, and kings or presidents (but not Emperors!).
Augustin Berque roots the Japanese postmodern aesthetic in the entire tradition of Buddhist non-substantialist ontology, and points out that Japan’s role is only that of a mediator in the new encounter between the West and the vast reach of Asian traditions. Undoubtedly the wisdom of Buddhism is Japan’s greatest revelation to the world, and it is an Indian or Chinese revelation. Original to Japan is only a certain aesthetic singularity, the luxury of charm. The disinterested appreciation of this is the Japanologist’s vocation, and a worthy vocation it is.
Roy Andrew Miller continues his powerful indictment of Japanese linguistic scholarship, which he sees as sterile, amateurish, and pervaded by racist presuppositions. The rigid barrier between kokugogaku which studies only Japanese and gengogaku which does not study Japanese at all has favoured a chauvinistic rejection of western linguistic methodology, with the result that Japanese can be presented as a language whose origins are totally obscure, or else fantastical derivations can be proposed, notable the thesis of Ono Susumu that ‘Japanese and Tamil are as alike as two eggs.’ In 1910 Kanazawa Shôzaburô pointed out the similarities between Japanese and Korean, depreciating the latter as a dialect of Japanese, and using the similarities as justification for the annexation of Korea by Japan. In recent linguistics this affinity has been obscured. The amateurism of Japanese linguistics is shown in Ono’s claim that since written documents for the Ryûkyû and Mongolian languages are relatively recent in comparison with Japanese the entire enterprise of comparative linguistics is impractical (pp. 215-16). There is no history of Japanese linguistic research, though history of research is a genre well practised in Japan, because the situation is so ideologically laden that no neutral history is possible (p. 217). Miller diagnoses a deep anger and resentment against western scientific method, dating back to the forced westernization of the Japanese in the Meiji period and to their discovery that western learning was not as painlessly absorbed as they had at first supposed. At the same time Japanese linguists seek the approbation of their western counterparts; yet when K.V. Zvelebil is impressed by the Tamil-Japanese parallels adduced by Ono he does not realize that most of them are forgeries (p. 237). Miller has been attacking Ono for a long time now; if Ono is as fatuous as he claims, and even if such fatuity goes down well with the masses in Japan, surely it is a waste of time and energy to rail against mediocrity in this way?
These contributions to a demystifying critique of modern Japanese culture can only be welcomed. Unfortunately they risk cutting off the branch they sit on and leaving Japanologists with nothing to talk about. The positive, constructive continuation of Japanese tradition cannot be brewed up by Japanologists, but depends on the creative initiative of the Japanese themselves.
Shorter version in Monumenta Nipponica 52 (1997):276-9